'The Receptionist' pays homage to America's office culture

Danny HeitmanThe Christian Science Monitor

With the arrival of Labor Day and the close of another vacation season, America's office workers will be migrating back to their native habitat – the hive of cubicles and corporate suites that, for those who are gainfully employed in this shaky economy, constitute a home away from home through much of the year.

This doesn't seem like a scene worthy of Norman Rockwell, who would have been hard pressed, one gathers, to find much pastoral charm in banks of desks bathed in fluorescent light. But what seems striking these days is the degree to which office culture, so long derided for its conventions and constraint, has become a source of national nostalgia.

That sentiment is evident in "The Receptionist," Janet Groth's recent memoir recounting her two decades answering the telephone at The New Yorker. On the surface, at least, Ms. Groth's lovely book reads like one more addition to the considerable shelf of books taking us inside America's most famous literary magazine.

She depicts a typical day at The New Yorker as a kind of perpetual block party, with the staff divided between unbounded eccentrics and the managers who try, with varying success, to keep them grounded. Name-dropping gives these histories a glamorous appeal; not every workplace, to be sure, can boast James Thurber in the hallway or A.J. Liebling in the elevator.

Yet what impresses me about The New Yorker's office politics isn't its singularity, but the universal chord it often strikes with workplaces everywhere. The figures here – office libertine, prim grammarian, shy secretary, and reticent boss – often seem like stock characters from the 9-to-5 landscape of white-collar employment.

It's the proximity of so many personalities within the narrow geography of an office building that gives workplace culture its strange and sometimes comic energy. An ineffable quality of corporate life thrives when a critical mass of brains and bodies works at the same address, and it's that density of social interaction that can get lost in the wake of business downsizing, clerical outsourcing, teleconferencing, and the rise of the telecommuter.

Perhaps no one sensed this more acutely than the late E.B. White, a celebrated New Yorker writer and children's author who should also be remembered as one of America's pioneering work-from-home employees.

In 1938, hankering to live full time on a farm, White traded New York for rural Maine, a move requiring that he and his wife, New Yorker editor Katharine White, do their magazine work through the telephone and postal mail. The arrangement brought numerous benefits, with the new locale inspiring some of E.B. White's best prose. But the Whites learned that there's no real substitute for the peculiar intimacies of office life, and they eventually returned for a time to work once again alongside their colleagues.

The point here is not that alternatives to the traditional office are invariably unworkable. Legions of workers who've found happiness outside the stationary corporate workplace tell us otherwise. But such bargains do involve definite costs as well as benefits, and the sense of community that can come from sharing an office can't be overlooked.

Perhaps that's why, as the conventional office continues to evolve, TV audiences have flocked to shows like "The Office," "Mad Men," "The Newsroom," and "30 Rock" – programs that alternately mock and celebrate the tribal rituals of kaffeeklatsches and water-cooler clans.

What Groth found at The New Yorker is what we all expect to find at an office – an assortment of allies, rivals, oddballs, and authority figures, all struggling – and often prevailing – at the precarious art of getting along.

In other words, a second family.

Danny Heitman, a columnist at The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."